Bar News - July 20, 2016
Legacy in the Law: Intergenerational Law Firms Unite Past, Present and Future
By: Carol Robidoux
Gerry O’Neil and his daughter Kaitlin O’Neil pictured with founders of the 100+-year-old firm, Normandin, Cheney & O’Neil.
Tom Connair, of the firm Leahy, Denault, Connair & Hodgman in Claremont, with his son, Jeremy Connair, who is looking forward to joining the firm.
Jonathan Boutin, left, and Kieran Altieri joined their fathers, Edmund Boutin and John Altieri (not pictured), to practice at the Londonderry law firm they founded, Boutin and Altieri.
J. L. Sweeney, of the Nashua firm Sweeney and Sweeney, and his mother Elaine Sweeney. Elaine holds a portrait of her husband, John “Jay” Leonard Sweeney Jr., and J.L. holds a portrait of his grandfather J. Leonard Sweeney.
In the Venn Diagram of New Hampshire law firms, there is a small but significant circle of niche practices that persist based, at least in part, due to the strength of their DNA: intergenerational law practices, where the times may be a-changing, but not the founding traditions.
Recent data collected by Facebook Research included a sample of 5.6 million parent/child pairs to explore the age-old nature versus nurture question. The conclusion: Occupation choice is a matter of social constructs within families more than genetics, but it’s clear that within a family of lawyers, children are proportionally more likely to gravitate toward a career in law, whether due to nature, nurture or a little of both.
In New Hampshire, what makes family-run law firms successful and sustainable is as individual as the firms themselves. Each has its own personality, says Tom Connair, of Leahy, Denault, Connair & Hodgman in Claremont. His son, Jeremy Connair, 30, is about to join the firm.
“The culture of our firm is that it’s family-oriented. We don’t focus on the billable hours, or who brings in which clients. The three of us work very closely together in a cooperative mode and that, along with the mentoring, has been the reason I’ve been here for 35 years,” says the elder Connair. “It’s important for the three of us – and now, with Jeremy on board – that same process continues. Law firms have distinct personalities, and that is our personality.”
Jeremy Connair is a 2016 graduate of UNH Law – his father’s alma mater. Although it took Jeremy a little longer to settle on a career path, he says he was always interested in his father’s profession – which Tom Connair settled on back in the eighth grade, and has the class essay to prove it.
Tom Connair’s father was a Sears executive who moved all around New England. And although his legal ambitions were not passed down to him by his dad, there was something about moving around the Northeast, including a stint in New Hampshire, that influenced where he decided to lay down roots for his own family.
Tom Connair chose Claremont for the specific kind of roots that take hold in a small New Hampshire town, and the kind of general law practice that can thrive there.
“It’s the epitome of a traditional, rural small town. It’s not a place you’ll get rich or retire early as an attorney. I hate to tell my son Jeremy this,” says Connair, who is actually telling his son this because his son is patched in on a three-way phone interview, “but he should also know that it’s a place where you will likely enjoy a high degree of job satisfaction and client appreciation, for the rest of your life.”
The multi-generational ties go even deeper at Leahy, Denault, Connair & Hodgman. The firm was founded in 1931 by Albert Leahy, a former district court judge, who also worked alongside his son, Albert Leahy Jr. – who, poetically, later became a district judge.
“Albert Junior came here straight out of law school and was my mentor for many years,” says Tom Connair. “There’s a chain of intergenerational relationships that bring a real sense of continuity to this practice, and Jeremy will be a great addition to that.”
Jeremy graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2008 and worked as a legal assistant for the next five years before deciding to enroll in law school. “After college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an attorney, but the work I did as a legal assistant helped me decide that it was the right career move for me,” he says. “I’m looking forward to working with my dad. I’ll get to know everyone quickly and there will be lots of mentoring and real-world experience. I’m not sure what the future holds down the road. Right now I’m focused on getting started.”
Tom Connair believes navigating a family business in these modern times is a two-way street. For him, it’s just as much about what his son brings to the table as what opportunities the firm is offering him. “We are looking forward to him being able to jump right in. He’s always been my IT guy at home, and now he will be our IT guy here,” he says of his son. “There’s no expectation that he’ll spend his career here, but it will be beneficial to him and to us for him to at least start his career here.”
Underscoring that a family law practice has to be built from the ground up, J.L. Sweeney of Nashua says he is still in awe of his own humble roots.
“My grandfather’s parents were dirt poor – his mother was a maid and his father was a janitor. He put himself through school – he played football at Tilton School on a football scholarship and then attended college,” says Sweeney, a third-generation practicing attorney.
Sweeney’s grandfather, J. Leonard Sweeney, was born in Nashua in 1911, the son of Irish immigrants who dreamed of a better life for their son and future generations. More than 100 years later, that dream has been actualized – and then some, says Sweeney, proud namesake of his father and grandfather before him.
Sweeney considered his options early on, but made the decision to study law during his junior year of college. Ultimately, the lure of being part of something successful that was also steeped in tradition appealed to him. He joined forces with his dad, John “Jay” Leonard Sweeney Jr., right out of college.
“One of the things that really helped the business be the success that it is today is my mom, Elaine – she was a teacher, but came to work for my dad in the 1970s, at a time when my dad was doing 10 or 15 bank closings a month. My mom was a real go-getter, and she broke her backside and got up to 600 bank closings a month. She was instrumental in developing the real estate side of the business,” Sweeney says.
As one of the oldest still-active, multi-generational New Hampshire law firms spanning three generations, it’s only natural that there is a deep history of multigenerational clients, like the Belevance family. Sweeney grew up with Joe Bellevance III, now chairman of Bellavance Beverage Co. Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they are more than business associates.
“There’s a continuity there. They understand our approach to business and have the same generational consistency,” says Bellavance. That kind of trust goes a long way, he says, whether it’s cutting to the quick of a contract or finding the right officiant for your wedding.
“Yes, J.L. married me and my wife, down in Tennessee. Even though it wasn’t a legal ceremony, it meant a lot to me to have him do our wedding. We did a legal ceremony when we got back from our honeymoon, which actually gives us two anniversaries to celebrate.”
Sweeney says his son, Jay Sweeney IV, so far doesn’t show much interest in the business. But his daughter, Lauren, has been coming into the office for years and seems to have what it takes to carry on the family legacy.
“She’s only 23, so you never know. My hope is both my kids will do whatever makes them happiest. I also have a niece and nephew on my sister’s side, and if they’re interested, that would be fantastic. Of course, I’d be happy to see the business passed down to the next generation,” he says.
That “heritage factor” resonates with Gerard “Jerry” O’Neil Jr., whose daughter, Kaitlin O’Neil became an associate at Normandin Cheney & O’Neil, a multi-generational practice established in Laconia more than a century ago.
“I was taught to understand and respect what it means to represent your neighbors,” says Jerry O’Neil. “The practice of law has changed over the 37 years I have been practicing, as technology and advertising have, in many instances, contributed to a more impersonal relationship between clients and their lawyers. The fact that my family connections run all the way back to the founding of our firm in 1914 is a strong reminder for me that practicing in a small community means both myself and our other firm attorneys will likely continue to have regular contact with the people we represent, long after the specific legal issue we are assisting them on is over.”
“Having my daughter follow me into the practice of law leaves me with a sense of responsibility to pass on our firm’s tradition, of being a local community-based practice,” he says.
Fitting the demographic profile of the nomadic millennial, Kaitlin O’Neil left New Hampshire after graduating high school in 2004, and spent the next 10 years barely looking back. She did her undergrad in Connecticut and then worked various jobs in New York and New Jersey until making the decision to enter law school at Rutgers in 2012.
She says the time spent away from the life she knew growing up in Meredith made her appreciate it enough to return and settle in, for good.
She sees her professional path as a balance of nature and nurture.
“I’m not sure if it’s something that goes down to the DNA, but I’m sure I was influenced at an early age by coming to the office with my dad. I remember noticing the respect that others seemed to have for my father and grandfather, and also the fact that they liked their jobs and enjoyed what they did,” she says. “I think all that had an effect on my decision to become a lawyer. I’m not sure if I have a natural aptitude, but my interest was piqued at an early age.”
Normandin, Cheney & O’Neil was founded in 1914 by FE Normandin, her grandfather’s uncle. Over the next several decades, a mix of sons and nephews helped grow the family business. Jerry O’Neil Jr. joined the firm in 1979, and Kaitlin O’Neil became the sixth member of the Normandin-O’Neil family to practice law.
“Yes, I am the first female from the family to practice law, but my grandfather’s cousin, Margaret “Peg” Normandin, was a daughter of the founder, and she practiced here for more than 40 years as a title abstractor. She was a large part of the firm’s history,” O’Neil says.
O’Neil has two younger sisters who have followed other career paths.
“I never felt like I had to. My decision was based on pride more than pressure – and I’d like to see the firm continue its reputation as a family-connected firm, whether it’s a sibling or a cousin who wants to come into the business someday,” she says.
Aside from O’Neil and her dad, the firm employs six other attorneys, something O’Neil says brings balance and a wider perspective to a family-run firm.
“I think that’s one thing that sets us apart from other multi-generational law firms. The other six attorneys all have family in the area and are all tied to the community, too, which is part of what has helped us grow,” says O’Neil.
Ultimately, says Kaitlyn O’Neil, it’s gratifying to be part of the heritage and continuity that the firm has always represented to her.
“What I love about this profession is that it’s about relationships. The partners in the firm do a good job of introducing you to clients, and I’m learning every day,” O’Neil says. “I think that’s why we’ve been around for 102 years. Our best calling card is our reputation.”
Boutin & Altieri of Londonderry is a multi-generational firm with a twist.
Ed Boutin and John Altieri met in 1968 while freshmen at George Washington University, a friendship born of an alphabetical situation.
“We were both in the same section of our class at Georgetown, which was divided into three sections based on your last name,” recalls Boutin. “John attended class regularly and was on the school’s law review. I attended occasionally, and may not have been the best law student who came down the pike, but our friendship was solid and it evolved over time.”
Their sons, Jonathan Boutin and Kieran Altieri – who grew up together with a bond of friendship just like their dads – have both joined the firm, and the ties that bind them all, through friendship and family, remain constant nearly half a century later.
After law school, Altieri went to New York City to work on Wall Street. Boutin stayed on in Washington, DC, for a few years before returning home to New Hampshire for a job with Sanders Associates. He eventually opened a solo practice in Londonderry, but continued to keep tabs on Altieri professionally, and vice versa.
“John and I collaborated over a 20-year period on cases involving environmental issues and Superfund sites in New Hampshire,” says Boutin.
Eventually, the two hatched a plan to get Altieri back in New Hampshire full-time.
“We happen to have homes on Lake Winnipesaukee together, within a stone’s throw from one another, and we had a home in Meredith which we decided would be the right place for our common practice. However, when John was unable to make the move back up here, we ended up opening a Fairfield, Connecticut, office and hired another partner to run the New York office, so now we have offices in three states. John spends most of his time in Connecticut.”
One perk to being next-door lake neighbors was that their families also got to know one another, and eventually, when Altieri’s son Kieran was ready to practice law, Boutin was thrilled to take him on.
“Kieran was actually here before his dad. That was in 2004, and then my son, Jonathan, who’s a bit younger than Kieran, joined the firm in 2010 – that was after already having a successful career in a different profession,” says Boutin.
“Having a son working with you – it feels seamless. The other day I had a client meeting and thought maybe Jon would have some insight, so I asked him to sit in, and it was right on,” says Boutin. “He was able to quickly and effectively contribute. Same thing with Kieran. He’s a superb writer and we’re actually collaborating on a significant brief together.”
Beyond seamlessness and collaboration, the true return on investment in a multi-generational practice is that when tradition meets forward thinking, you’re building the future of your practice on solid ground.
“What we’re trying to do, John and I, is build a platform, so all of us here can thrive,” says Boutin, “and so our employees – some who have been with us for as many as 40 years always have a place to be.”
Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer based in Manchester and the editor and publisher of hyperlocal news website, www.manchesterinklink.com.